David Foster Wallace, 1962-2008

September 14, 2008 § 3 Comments

Too soon. Too soon. Too soon.

The news was horrifying in a lot of ways, not least of which the method. All of us who loved his work are torn between wanting to know why and not wanting to know anything at all, I think. I’m sure it wasn’t meant as a grand gesture, though. I think we can all agree on that. It’s sad and terrible and I can’t imagine what kind of pain he must have been in, to do this.

While I’m going to reread the last complete novel we’re ever going to get from DFW because it’s the only way I can think of to mourn and celebrate — and because I’ve put it off too long already — it’s two other pieces that my mind keeps going back to. One is “The Depressed Person.” It is so hard to admit that understanding, and empathizing, and expressing, are not the same as overcoming. It’s hard to admit that someone who has shown such a capacity for, and commitment to, all of these things, could commit the ultimate selfish act. Again: what agony he must have been in.

The other is “Up, Simba,” just because of the timing, I suppose. It has been such a shitty month, on a national level. And DFW must have been so disappointed in Senator McCain — in all of us. And I can’t believe I’m never going to hear another word from the one thinker on politics, governance, civic duty, that I actually trusted.

He was one of our great writers, one of our great thinkers. And now he’s dead, and I’m looking at the shelf and his section is far too small. Let’s read him, and remember.

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§ 3 Responses to David Foster Wallace, 1962-2008

  • jaime says:

    While there are other living authors whose fiction speaks to me more, there is no other contemporary author who has personally changed me, changed my brain, like DFW did. It was the combination of his brain and heart. I loved the rigor of his thinking, his ability to parse and question and reconstruct and circle around unnameable things. . .and communicate that whole process. He was so intelligent and an inspired me to think harder, to think critically, like, for real. But it’s that in combination his heart that made him great. He had a real talent for empathy, which was becoming stronger and stronger as time went on. I remember reading Oblivion and being so impressed with that empathy. He became the person I looked up to, morally. Because he was also putting that work in. Honesty. Humility. Generosity. He took all the old virtues seriously, personally, and that affected me big-time.

    He was my favorite contemporary critic. I always looked forward to hearing what he had to say on any topic, it was always worth reading and thinking about. Now he joins a handful of other writers whose thinking is so potent to me, it’s impossible to really grasp that they aren’t alive. (It’s an old-guy club: Guy Davenport, John Ruskin, Montaigne. I would never, in a thousand years, have believed he would join it.)

    The later fiction (Brief Interviews and Oblivion) gets a bad rap, I think. It’s nowhere near as fun or funny as the early stuff, of course. But in it DFW almost miraculously (to me) captures the exact feeling of what it’s like to live now. Like catching some kind of dying fluorescent moth under a glass. I’ve never read anyone else who could do it. I can imagine myself at age 65 rereading the stories in Oblivion and being able to remember *exactly* what it felt like to live in the first decade of the 2000s in the United States. The certain mixture of doom and mania and sadness and unreality.

    Ugh. David Foster Wallace taught me so much. It’s heartbreaking that he’s gone, that brain and that heart.

  • Katy says:

    This news was so distressing, upsetting, heartbreaking.

    The words “genius” and “brilliant” are so overused as to be rendered meaningless, but DFW was a genius and brilliant. Human nature doesn’t change, and so our greatest writers, the ones who best describe the human condition, are timeless. But until I read DFW, I don’t think I had ever read a contemporary writer who fit in that category. They were all dead guys (or gals), and I think part of me assumed something essential in our culture had been lost, that nothing in the present or future was ever going to live up to the past, and there would be plenty of things worth reading, but no one was ever going to live up to the great ones of the past. But DFW, man.

    He would be writing these incredibly complex, challenging, mindbendingly brilliant things, but then he would throw in these terms that you yourself would use, like “I shit you not.” And that was just mindblowing to me. Because he was writing these brilliant things that mattered, things that were about both human nature universally, but also specifically about life right this minute. And he was from Illinois, no less, and very much a product of the midwest and your generation, more or less, (he dipped!), and he just seemed like the most brilliant friend you had, who would actually speak in paragraphs like he wrote, and would challenge you to be a better thinker, a better person. And I felt like, OK, here is someone for the ages but who is here now. And to feel like, “Well, everything important has already been said, now we can just say pithy things cleverly,” well, what a fucking cop-out that is. And DFW pointed out whenever we hid behind things like irony, and he first pointed the finger at himself.

    Jaime is right; he was a moral compass. Which is why it is so fucking horrible to me that he killed himself. Because I think of his wife finding him. And I know that of anyone, DFW would have been the first to point at himself, to point out the selfishness in that action. And I think that to do that, he must have been in literally unbearable pain.

    And it’s sad to me that inevitably all of his writing is going to be colored by how it ended.

  • Benjamin Steele says:

    I was reading something interesting about the “Depressed Person.” Supposedly, many clinically depressed people criticized it for what they perceived as a lack of sympathetic understanding in that some felt it presented depressed people as selfish.

    But maybe this portrayal was how he perceived himself especially in his later choice of suicide. Maybe, if he judged himself as such, it was his very sense of selfishness that led him to suicide. However, in your post “The Great White Shark of Pain”, DFW’s quote doesn’t seem to portray depression as selfish at all… unless someone leaping out of a burning building is selfish.

    The problem isn’t selfishness, but a society unable to help the suffering person. I came across an article about this:


    “What I have read gives a convincing account of Wallace’s excruciating depression since his teen years. I think it was his sister who pointed out that he held off from suicide to a heroic degree, that it’s selfish of us to ask him to “hold out a little longer” because he did hold out a helluva lot longer.”

    If anything is selfish, it is a society that causes the sufferer to feel isolated. But of course the one who suffers too often ends up blaming themselves.

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